Friday 10 November 2017

SWF WRITER FOCUS: Elaine Chiew interviews Singapore-based Filipino writer Victor Fernando Ocampo

For every writer, once in a rare while, a book comes along and really shakes you up, where (instead of that height/ceiling metaphor) I’d like to say instead, the floor drops on which you thought the legs of fiction stood.   Victor Fernando Ocampo’s The Infinite Library and Other Stories did that for me.  The ideas that power this collection are not just incredibly imaginative, they also weave a hybrid crossing through magical realism, allegory and science fiction, that ‘synchronicity’ Ocampo mentions in one of his stories.  Rendered in prose that bears a unique voice, and also dark subtle humour in surprising turns of phrases, this collection is an invitation to a labyrinth for thought.

First an introduction to Victor:

Victor Fernando R. Ocampo is a Singapore-based Filipino writer. He is the author of The Infinite Library and Other Stories (Math Paper Press, 2017) and Here be Dragons (Canvas Press, 2015), which won the Romeo Forbes Children’s Story Award in 2012.  

His writing has appeared in many publications including Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Likhaan Journal, Strange Horizons, Philippine Graphic, Science Fiction World and The Quarterly Literature Review of Singapore, as well as anthologies like The Best New Singapore Short Stories, Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction, Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction, and the Philippine Speculative Fiction series. Visit his blog at or follow him on Twitter @VictorOcampo. 

EC:  Hello Victor! It’s so good to have you on board AsianBooksBlog to talk about your wonderful debut short story collection, The Infinite Library and Other Stories, launched at the Singapore Writers Festival.   

VFO:  It’s good to e-meet you. Thank you so much for interviewing me and for the very kind words! 

EC:  Let’s start with the title, which is also one of the pertinent features that interlink many of the stories: the infinite library.  Where did this come from and what, for you, does it symbolise?

VFO:  The name The Infinite Library and Other Stories was inspired by one of my all-time favourite short stories - The Library of Babel from Jorge Luis Borges'  The Garden of Forking Paths. In that story there is a library full of gibberish books, the permutations of which somehow contain every coherent book ever written or that might ever be written, in every version and language possible.  However, no one can figure out how to decipher this and the actual books remain useless, driving the librarians to destructive behaviors. 

In my book, although there is no actual story called The Infinite Library, if you read through all the stories, a kind of meta-fictional superstructure emerges, one which gives another layer of meaning to each of the individual stories. With regards to symbolism, Borges once said that the words that made up books were themselves just symbols, ones whose meanings were arbitrary and could differ across cultures, languages, and time periods. I want the reader to do the same for the concept of The Infinite Library.  

Victor Ocampo, courtesy of author.
EC: I'm glad you mention Borges. Mr. Borges and Mr. Marquez make an appearance as walk-on characters in one of your stories (or perhaps, the names don’t represent the actual giants of literature but rather their spectral influence).  Are they your literary heroes, or more ambivalently, do they represent for you what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”?  

VFO:  You got me there. Jorge Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are indeed two of my favourite authors (along with Stanislaw Lem, Ursula Le Guin,  and Nick Joaquin, just to name a few more).  They have given my reading life so much meaning, but have also made my writing practice so hard. 

When I first started writing, I was scared that my stories would hew too closely to my influences. In other words, if we were in the music business,  I was scared I'd be stuck as a remix DJ instead of growing as an original singer-song writer. My  juvenile way to deal with this was to "tuckerize" my heroes -- sometimes putting them in miserable or compromising situations (for example having Mr. Borges drink himself under the table at the Holland Village Food Centre). As I grew older, I gained a deeper understanding of both these writers and their work. Knowledge tames many demons.

EC:  As mentioned in the speculative fiction panel you were part of at Singapore Writers’ Festival, moderated by Mr. Gene Tan, death seems to be a pre-occupation or theme for many of the stories in this collection.  How does the idea of death correspond to your ideas of Catholicism and your views on ethnicity (or identity)?

VFO:  If you spend anytime at all in the Philippines or with Filipinos you will eventually hear the phrase: “Bahala na”. This can literally be translated as "Let's leave it up to God" and is used idiomatically to mean “There’s nothing we can do”. 

I work in the technology industry which values problem-solving highly. In my head I view Death from a scientific/Game Over perspective. But no one can truly escape their past - artists and writers especially. I often find the Catholic Filipino's passive fatalism creeping unbidden into my work and I constantly need to confront it.     

EC:  Claire Keegan in her workshop How Fiction Works for SWF also touched upon death (there, death seems remarkably democratic -- for every single person, death can be understood as “there will be one day you don’t get to the end of...). 

VFO:  The poet Langston Hughes once wrote that  “Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid.” 

I have a problem with this way of thinking. Death is  the one event that we can predict with absolute certainty will happen. Everybody will die at some point. Yet most of us refuse to think about it until it stares us at the face. Thinking about death is actually one of the most human things we can do. 

My stories are nothing but a meditation on the many different ways people deal with leaving our mortal coil (and/or sometimes, if they are lucky, deal with leaving something behind). 

EC:  Let’s go more in depth into several of your stories in terms of how death is handled:

In Synchroniticy  the trope of death is explored as the coming as a bus (or some form of transport).

VFO:  Death as a journey is a feature of many religions. In "Synchronicity" the bus driver echoes Charon (or Kharon), the ferryman to Hades in Greek Mythology. That's why the protagonist requires a bus card in this weird little reverse Orpheus tale.

EC:  Interestingly though, in Big Enough for the Entire Universe, death is infinity -- the algorithm for the soul -- a kind of existential death that is separate from physical death (here, specifically coming to Bukit Batok, LOL).

VFO: Death and Identity is another of my favorite themes. Big Enough for the Entire Universe is a police procedural written from the point of view of the victims of an unknown disaster. At some point the reader discovers that there's a nanotech goo that will rewrite the world and bring back the dead family of a grief-stricken scientist.  

EC:  The Singaporean locale for this story is used very cleverly and provides a nice touch of levity!

VFO:  I wanted to discuss whether someone's personal pain could be big enough to justify rebooting reality. Oddly enough, although my story is fiction, there are actual experiments here in Singapore where parts of this technology is being explored.  

EC: And then in Here Be Dragons, death is seen as something very personal -- a monster, a demon, perhaps dragons drawn upon the map of any given individual life.

VFO:  Here be Dragons is another story that deals with identity. If the protagonist's map captures absolutely all the information about her in a one-to-one correspondence - everything she is, everything she ever thinks about, everything she feels, sees, hears and eats, does that make her and her map one entity? In other words, when does a map of you actually become you?

EC:  Lastly, in one of my favourite stories in this collection, 1MD1in10: where if you’re selected to be a 1 in 10 resident of the New Cities, you volunteer to be the weakest link (to be excised as expedience demands): in other words, death as a weapon of the state.

VFO:  Except for Costa Rica, Iceland, Mauritius, Monaco, Panama and Vanuatu, every country in the world has a standing military force. It's actually the norm for states to wield death as a weapon. I M D 1 in 10 simply extrapolates this from a typically efficient Singaporean perspective. The needs of the one are sacrificed for the needs of the many.

The story also explores other themes - personal versus public identity, cognitive dissonance and the use of language. It also asks the question: "Is not being dead the same as being alive?" 

EC: There’s also a fascinating take on Philippine history of independence and hero Jose Rizal in the first story: Mene, Thecel, Phares. (First of all, for our readers,what do these words mean?)  Can you also talk a bit about your process of writing this story, and the research involved?  What moved you to write this story?

VFO:  I actually define the words at the end of the story. "Mene, Thecel, Phares" means nothing except for what the Prophet Daniel explained to King Belshazzar, a co-regent of Babylon (The Book of Daniel, chapter 5). They are literately the words referred to in the idiom "the writing's on the wall". 

In late 2015 I was despairing over the political scene in the Philippines. I wondered how the Philippine's National Hero, Jose Rizal would have felt if he saw the sorry state of the nation he had helped create. At the same time I had just finished re-reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, as well as a collection of Raymond Carver's short stories. The idea occurred to me to write an Alternate History "Scientific Romance" about a young Rizal but with the slow-burn grittiness of a typical Carver tale. After sketching out the plot, I spent months completing my world-building by reading books about Jose Rizal and his published private correspondence, works on so-called "Scientific Racism", old Bavarian guide books, obscure 19th century technologies, Adolph Hitler conspiracy theories, dusty volumes of The Journal of Philippine Science, and early 20th century magazines on the Nudism movement.     

In the story, the writing's indeed on the wall for my Rizal character. Whatever happens he will give his life for his nascent nation. However, i give the reader some agency in determining how he should meet his fate. 

EC:  Surveillance is a thematic focus in several of the stories.  Can you talk a bit about how you see technology’s role in this, and what we need to think about when we think about surveillance?

VFO:  I work in this particular technology space. I have worked in an ethical hacking company, a smart card and RFID manufacturer, and various telecommunications firms. I've even helped develop systems for MINDEF and the LTA. I know that surveillance is a fact of modern life. It is supposed to make us feel more secure. However the perceived invasion of privacy, real or imagined, often makes us feel anything but. This has become a component of our collective existential dread.    

EC:  Latin (as a ‘dead' language) as with sprinkles of Tagalog, Spanish and even the old Bavarian intersperse with the predominance of English and I found that very interesting.  It might faze or annoy certain readers (as you don’t always provide a translation) but for me, it resonates with something else Ken Liu said on another panel at SWF -- that writers writing in English from the periphery can often perform an ‘assault’ on the dominance of English as a system of expression and oppression.  What are your thoughts on this?

VFO:  I live in Singapore, a country with four official languages. There is never a time when I am out in public when I understand 100% of all the conversations around me. As a writer, I am obligated by my craft to share my experience and this is how I choose to do it. Besides, I generally don't like to underestimate my readers or choose words just for effect. I trust them enough to immerse themselves in the text and intuit the meanings.

EC:  A writer after my own heart!   I too don’t like to underestimate readers of short story collections; they’re often perspicacious and insightful readers.  Which brings me to my final question: why you chose to structure this as a short story collection (albeit an interlinked one) rather than say, a novel? All the stories have many tentacles of connection to each other, more interlinked than many of the linked collections I’ve read.  There’s a time chronology of sorts, as well as a development and narrative arc as well in terms of similar characters flowing through the stories and computer and programming as the prevailing technology.  

VFO:  I like short stories. I take some issue with the idea that novels are inherently better than short stories. To me this is like asking if murals are inherently better than miniatures. That said, ask me again next year where I stand on long form fiction.   

EC:  Thank you Victor for joining us and for sharing with us many facets of your thought process while writing this book. Congratulations again!

VFO:  Thanks again for this interview!

Details:  The Infinite Library and Other Stories is published in paperback by Math Paper Press (e-book forthcoming), and currently available from Kinokuniya and Books Actually Singapore at local currency.